Friday, 8 April 2016

A Yam Wooden Mask from the UCL Ethnography Collections

Figure 1: A Yam wooden mask from UCL  

This  painted wood mask (M.16.a) is from the Abelam tribe of the east Sepik River district of Papua New Guinea. It was donated to UCL by Phyllis Kaberry around the 1960s.
The mask is an important item in this teaching collection. In its original context in Abelam, the mask would be an important yam ceremonial spiritual object, but would probably also be perceived as a symbol of  phallic power. It is a  rare and precious example of oceanic art.  

The mask is carved out of wood (see Figure 1). After being carved and polished, it was painted with various pigments (mainly ochre, black, orange, yellow and white) in order to  depict a human face.

Figure 2: Sketches indicating cracks  and side view

The mask measures about 330mm × 230mm × 96mm. It has the shape of an irregular ellipse.  Each ear has a small hole. On the top rim of the mask, there is also a hole.
The central part of the mask is relatively flat (see Figure 2). But the reverse is concave  and has a rough surface (see Figure 3).

Figure 3: The inside of the mask

By researching the origin of the mask, a range of raw materials can be hypothesised. The wood is heavy and cut from a one whole piece - this suggests that a large section of the trunk of a mature tree might have been used here. In terms of pigments, I found that the black was probably obtained from charcoal or soot. White might have been obtained from clay, limestone or sea shells. The yellow pigments might have come from turmeric, etc.

Figure 4: Cracks 

The mask is in stable condition but would profit from specialist conservation attention. There are old cracks spreading through the surface and the pigments are flaking and powdery. 

Figure 5: Scratches on the surface

There are also some scratches on the painting (see Figure 4 and 5). Because of the friability of the paint layer, the mask should be handled as little as possible.  

Photographs by author. Please do not use without authorization.  


Baraldi, P. et al. 2012. Study of the Technique and of the Materials of a 19th-Century Polychrome Wood Mask from Papua New Guinea. Archaeometry, 56(2), Pp.313-330.

Coupaye, L. 2013. Growing artefacts, displaying relationships : Yams, art and technology amongst the Nyamikum Abelam of Papua New Guinea. New York : Berghahn Books, Pp 8-20.

Coupaye, L. 2009. Ways of Enchanting. Journal of Material Culture, 14(4), Pp. 433-458. 2016. Abelam Yam Mask Blue Pigment Oceanic Art Papua New Guinea Art. [online] Available at: [Accessed 11 Mar. 2016].

Florian, M., Kronkright, Dale Paul, & Norton, Ruth E. 1990. The conservation of artifacts made from plant materials. Marian del Rey, California: Getty Conservation Institute. Pp. 14-23

Greub, S., & Tribal Art Centre. 1985. Authority and ornament : Art of the Sepik River, Papua New Guinea. Basel: Tribal Art Centre, Edition Greub. Pp. 19-31

Hill, R. 2001. Traditional paint from Papua New Guinea: Context, materials and techniques, and their implications for conservation. The Conservator, 25(1), Pp. 49-61.

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